New York Times Pleads Guilty to Remixing M.I.A. Quote

In an Editors’ Note today , the New York Times says that writer Lynn Hirschberg misrepresented a quote in her troublesome Times Magazine profile of pop star M.I.A.:

While discussing her efforts to draw attention to the civil war in her home country, Sri Lanka, she was quoted as saying: “I wasn’t trying to be like Bono. He’s not from Africa — I’m from there. I’m tired of pop stars who say, ‘Give peace a chance.’ I’d rather say, ‘Give war a chance.’ The whole point of going to the Grammys was to say, ‘Hey, 50,000 people are gonna die next month, and here’s your opportunity to help.’ And no one did.”

While M.I.A. did make those remarks, she did not make the entire statement at the same point in the interview, or in the order in which it was presented.

The part that begins, “The whole point of going to the Grammys,” up to the end of the quotation, actually came first. The part that begins, “I wasn’t trying to be like Bono,” and ends, “Give war a chance,” came later in the same interview. The article should have made clear that the two quotations came from different parts of the interview

Previously, Hirschberg had told John Koblin of the New York Observer than the difference between the published quote and an audio clip of the interview posted online by M.I.A. was misleading, because M.I.A. had “repeated things constantly. She said that once and said a variation of it on other occasions.”

The Times’ note today contradicts that account.

Stitching together separate remarks into a single quote is not unheard of, particularly in magazine writing—a sub-field in which editors tend to prize smoothness and thematic power, sometimes at the expense of plain factual accuracy.

Though the Times Magazine is now eligible for National Magazine Awards, its reporting is still supposed to adhere to the inartistic, verifiable standards of daily newspapering. In 2004, the paper’s first public editor, Daniel Okrent, described the clash between newspaper and magazine cultures at the Times:

Magazine people say most newspaper stories aren’t written well enough, or dramatically enough, to engage the reader; newspaper people say magazine writers excel not at storytelling but at embroidery.

In 2007, in a column criticizing Times Magazine writer Deborah Solomon for repeatedly rearranging interview quotes, public editor Clark Hoyt invoked the newspaper’s written policy:

The Times’s Manual of Style and Usage says that readers have a right to assume that every word in quotation marks is what was actually said…. The manual also says ellipses should be used to signal omissions in transcripts, and that “The Times does not ‘clean up’ quotations.”

The Editors’ Note does not address whether a batch of truffle-flavored French fries being eaten by M.I.A.—deployed by Hirschberg in the story as a damning example of the contradictions between the pop star’s politics and her comfortable lifestyle—had in fact been ordered by the reporter, as the online audio suggests they were.